Thriving cities depend on the adventurous among us, who alter the urban landscape when they forge their own successful paths.

Each month, we ask an influential San Diegan: What was it like for you in the beginning?

Tim Mays

Owner, Co-Founder,  The Casbah,
How Long: 27 years

What was the moment that propelled you to open your own business?
A couple different moments actually. I was always a huge music fan as a kid, listening to records, watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan back in the 60’s while growing up in Barstow. Started attending concerts in about 1972 — first show I ever saw was Sly and the Family Stone at The Forum in Los Angeles. Moved to San Diego in 1973 to go to SDSU, and started going to see shows at Montezuma Hall, Backdoor, Sports Arena etc. Saw all the classic old rock bands — Stones, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Wings, Aerosmith, Bowie, etc. — and then started to get into punk rock in about 1979 or so, started going to shows in Los Angeles at places like Hong Kong Cafe, Madame Wong’s, Club 88, Whisky, Starwood, etc.

A friend and I decided to put on a show in Los Angeles in 1980 with Weirdos, Plugz, Suburban Lawns, and Penetrators. It did extremely well and I got asked to become a partner in the Skeleton Club, San Diego’s first punk rock club, which was located at the corner of 2nd & Market, downtown.

That lasted a few months before it got shut down by the SDPD. Then I just started booking shows at various venues around town — Spirit Club, North Park Lion’s Club, Adams Ave Theatre, Carpenter’s Hall, Zebra Club, Wabash Hall, etc. Was all a hobby at that time — I had a regular job and had no idea that it would turn into anything viable. I was just a music fan and wanted to see  bands play in San Diego that weren’t coming here. So that’s how I started in the music business, as a fan, doing it for the love of music.

Flash forward a few years to about 1985 or so, and skinheads and violence in the local punk rock scene started to become an issue and a drain, mentally and physically. I was spending a lot of time with Peter English, who was also a semi-punk rock promoter, and Bob Bennett (RIP), who owned San Diego’s first vintage clothing store, RazzmaTazz on 5th Ave in Hillcrest. We started throwing parties for our friends. One day, Peter and I were walking around late night in San Francisco trying to find an after hours party and we started talking about opening a bar. We talked about it into the wee hours, and when we returned to San Diego we got together with Bob and decided to see if this bar called The Pink Panther, located on Morena Boulevard, was for sale.

We had all driven past it on the freeway for years, and it had a really cool neon sign out front. We sent a friend in undercover acting like a business broker and she asked the owner if he was interested in selling. He had just lost his wife to his head bartender, and was tired of the bar, so he agreed to sell it to us for $30K. We pooled our resources, came up with a $3K downpayment, and opened a few days before Christmas in 1986. We had taken our love of nightlife and throwing parties and, within a year, it was like being at a big party every night at the Pink Panther. It was the only bar at that time owned by young people for young people. Jukebox, beer and wine, pool tables. A really crazy scene….

What struggles did you face starting the Casbah?
At the time we opened the first Casbah location in 1989, we had the Pink Panther and it was doing well. But I had stopped doing concerts in 1986. Our original idea at the Casbah was to do local roots, R&B, rockabilly, acoustic acts. We had an espresso machine and the windows were open to the outside. The only other viable venue in town at that time was Spirit Club, but nobody liked playing there so I started getting calls from bands asking to play. Then in 1990, the local music scene started to take off so we became the epicenter of that whole thing. The struggles we faced initially were in convincing our Pink Panther fan base that the Casbah wasn’t going to cannibalize that business, getting them to accept the “new” bar. This all became moot when, later in 1990, we lost our lease at the Panther and had to close it.

What was the riskiest business move you ever made?
I’m pretty conservative when it comes to business, careful mostly in making decisions or changes. Promoting concerts is a form of gambling though, and I’ve taken some risks over the years with big shows outside the Casbah that have resulted in a couple major losses — we’re talking $40K in one swoop back in 2006 or so. So the biggest risks I take are in booking large shows at large venues — the upside is never close to what the potential downside can be. Luckily, it doesn’t happen often.

If you could change the past, is there anything in your career you’d do differently?
I’m pretty happy with my career, considering I never thought of it as a career when I was starting out. I have a degree in Telecom and Film from SDSU that I never put to use because, back when I graduated from college, you pretty much had to relocate to LA to get a job in that field. I did learn a lot in the TCF program about working with people, plus various production issues that have helped me immensely in what I do now.

Could you ever go back to a “normal job” working for someone else?
There are times when I wish I had a 9-5 job so that I could just go home after work and not have to deal/worry about anything from work. Not get a call at 2am about a problem, or have to deal with the other issues that are constant in any business that you may own. But those times are few and far between, and I couldn’t see myself working a normal job. I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t had to since my last job in retail — at The Broadway in Horton Plaza — which ended in 1987.

What personality traits must a successful business owner possess?
Intelligence, confidence, diplomacy, vision, good taste, passion, appreciation, humility, honesty, responsibility, respect for others,  motivation to get up every day and do what you do no matter what issues you are facing.

In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where your work is today, what three words describe how you might have felt?
Wake me up! (I must be dreaming).


Photo by Stacy Keck